Lady Leopards

TC’s Lauren Cox (8) and Shelby Epley rise to block an attack by Western Texas’ Mackensi Christian in the Lady Leopards’ win Tuesday.

In her first two seasons as the Temple College volleyball coach, Jordan Pickett had rosters full of freshmen.

The 2017 team of 10 freshmen was one Pickett scrambled to put together just to field a squad that netted just three wins.

Only one of those played on the 2018 team that featured Pickett’s first recruiting class and 11 freshmen and posted five victories.

Pickett’s first full team of sophomores and freshmen — 18 players in all — made its home debut Tuesday and looked like the group the coach had been searching for in a 25-10, 29-27, 25-21 sweep of Western Texas.

“It’s such a breath of fresh air to have some leadership, people I’ve trained and respect,” Pickett said. “That way they can help the freshmen. It makes a huge difference.”

How much of a difference is yet to be seen. The two previous years, though, the Lady Leopards waited until September to get their first win of the season. Tuesday’s victory improved their record to 2-3, with the three losses coming against ranked opponents Navarro, Tyler and Panola.

“It feels good to get some wins,” setter Lisa Gonzalez said. “Hopefully, we rack up some more to go into conference with confidence.”

Gonzalez is one of nine sophomores on the squad and said having the balance of returners and newcomers is helping already.

“Last year when we made mistakes, we had to learn from them (on our own),” she said. “We didn’t have anyone telling us right from wrong. This year, we have some really talented freshmen coming in so we can just guide them in the right way.”

The Lady Leopards are improved but were still mistake-prone Tuesday.

After dominating the first set, Temple struggled to begin the second set as the Lady Westerners took a quick 3-0 lead on three Lady Leopards miscues.

A kill by Annelle Rodriguez finally got Temple on the board. A couple of kills by Shelby Epley and two aces by Chloe Darilek kept the Lady Leopards competitive despite several more mistakes, before Pickett called a timeout to address the situation with her team down 11-8.

“In the first set, we had only six errors,” Pickett said. “And I pretty much told them the way we’re playing right now was unacceptable because they set the standard in the first set.”

The intense timeout sparked the Lady Leopards, who promptly tied the match at 11 with powerful kills by Breonna Fleming and Rodriguez off quick sets by Emily Whorley, and an error by Western Texas.

As Temple raised its game, so did Western Texas, and neither team led by more than two points the rest of the way before TC finally won the set with an ace by Epley.

“It was rough,” Gonzalez said. “We played at a slower pace than we usually do. Once we got control of ourselves, we saw some good volleyball.”

The third set also was a back-and-forth affair that the Lady Westerners led 19-16 before the Lady Leopards went on a 8-1 run, highlighted by back-to-back kills by Rodriguez and a block by Imana Ellis to get to set point. After a mishandled ball on the first match point, Temple closed it out with Rodriguez’s eighth kill of the set and 11th of the match.

Gonzalez said one thing that’s helpful this year is the big roster, of which, 16 players had already seen significant action prior to Tuesday’s tilt.

“It’s awesome because our practices are filled with super-intense players always working hard,” she said. “The lineup is never for sure, so there are good intrasquad scrimmages, and the intensity in the practices just elevates our game.”

After struggling for two seasons, Pickett said the big roster was definitely by design.

“What we really wanted was to have at least three players in every spot, so everyone is competing for a starting spot,” Pickett said. “That way there’s competition every single day.

“When I was recruiting this year, it was more about filling the gaps instead of filling a roster. I was able to find really key players.”

If Tuesday was any indication, those key players are showing that the Lady Leopards have a lot to be optimistic about.

“The first home match can be very nerve-racking,” Pickett said. “The past few years, they have completely gone awry. So I’m really proud of the way they responded by pulling out that second and third set because when things aren’t working correctly, you have to grind and get gritty and figure it out. That’s what they did.”